(2009)4Kimber MyersWith The Messenger, first-time director Oren Moverman has crafted a film that goes beyond the narrative of the traditional war movie. Rather than focusing on fighting or even the politics of the fiercely debated war in Iraq, this script centers on grief, recovery, and relationships. Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) gives a raw, real performance as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a soldier who was injured in Iraq. With a few months left in his tour of duty, Will is assigned to work under Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, No Country for Old Men). Stone is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and a member of the army's Casualty Notification division. Together, the men have the difficult mission of telling people of their loved ones' deaths, a job fraught with tension and tears. Each notification brings new challenges to the newcomer and his more experienced superior, but Will also struggles with his own adjustments to life after combat. He forges a connection with a recently widowed woman, Olivia (Samantha Morton, In America), and his friendship with Tony also serves as an anchor in his new life.
Moverman's previous work as a screenwriter has ranged from the audacious (I'm Not There) to the average (Married Life), but this script -- a collaboration with producer Alessandro Camon -- never feels anything less than authentic. Each new notification brings an opportunity for tears, both onscreen and in the audience, but it is always moving and never manipulative. The writers deserve plenty of praise, but lesser actors could have marred the script's strength. Foster has proven his chameleon-like abilities in past works, from Alpha Dog to Six Feet Under, but The Messenger allows him to reveal even more emotion without ever being showy. Harrelson has impressive moments of intensity, but his character's wry humor gives a respite from the tragedies that make up Tony's and Will's lives. As next of kin notified by the men, Morton and Steve Buscemi are heartbreaking to watch.
The film has a naturalistic feel, hearkening back to the war films of the 1970s, such as the Oscar winner Coming Home, but it never comments on the validity of the war itself. Though The Messenger boasts approval from the army and input from individual soldiers, it somehow manages to remain surprisingly neutral in its stance on war. It's more about people than politics, and the fine script makes it an intensely personal viewing experience.